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Now Concerning Spiritual Gifts

A Homily from I Corinthians 12:1-11

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Union Christian Church (Disciples), Watkinsville, GA

January 14, 2007 (Second Sunday after the Epiphany)

Our Epistle text today comes from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. From what we can tell, the book of First Corinthians is a response to a letter he had received from the church. Since we don’t have the original letter that prompted Paul’s reply, we have to guess what questions the church asked the apostle based on the answers he gives them.

Based on those answers, it seems that the church in Corinth was deeply divided along theological issues like freedom and morality, along social issues of wealth and poverty, and also along personal issues regarding how different members contribute to the church community. Although it appears that the Corinthian Christians were constantly arguing with each other, they seem to have at least some faith in Paul’s authority and ability to resolve their disputes, and he seems to have some affection for them (at least at the time of this letter). By the time he writes Second Corinthians, however, Paul is pretty much fed up with them.

It’s easy to understand why. In the passage we are studying today, Paul is addressing the question of spiritual gifts – the abilities and talents which individual Christians use to help the church thrive and grow. Apparently, some of the Christians in Corinth were convinced that their particular skills made them superior to their sisters and brothers in the church. Paul wants to set them straight.

He starts off the chapter by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, I do not want you to be ignorant.” The trouble with our translation of that passage is that we’re not sure if the word he uses here (/pneumatikon/) means “spiritual gifts” – since it’s different from the word he uses later in the chapter (/charismata/). It could be, then, that he means “Now concerning ‘spiritual people.’”

I confess, the phrase “spiritual people” appeals to me more because it seems to convey the kinds of people Paul is concerned about. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Now, regarding those smug, churchy types that think they’re special!” Somehow, that just fits, because it’s not hard to picture those folks.

Now, it’s easy for me to pick on these people a little bit since I just met y’all and I can say with all honesty that I’m not speaking of anyone here in particular. Nevertheless, I’m sure we have all been in churches where one or two folks thought that their particular talent or skill set them somehow above all of the other people who work so hard to keep the church doors open. In the church where I grew up, those folks were the tenor soloists. You would have thought that the only reason they didn’t walk on water was that they didn’t want to get their sandals soggy. In the church where I grew up, being able to belt out a verse of “Just as I Am” made you a rock star.

The problem is that there are no rock stars in Christianity, and Chapter 12 of First Corinthians is intended to make that point. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t start with chastising the super-Christians of the Corinthian church. He starts by describing the Holy Spirit.

Paul says, “Back when you worshipped other gods, you got used to the fact that the idols you worshipped couldn’t talk. They were just lumps of metal or wood carved to look alive, but in fact they were dead. They had no mind, and they had no voice because they did not represent an actual being, a real God.”

“Now, however,” Paul writes, “you worship the living God. Back when you used to pray, no one was listening. Now when you pray, God hears and the Holy Spirit acts. Before, when you went to church, you were whistling in the wind. Now you are calling on the unlimited power of almighty God.”

That point alone is worth our attention in the twenty-first century Church. Expectations for churches, religion, and God have never been lower. On any given Sunday most people, even those who identify themselves as Christians, find somewhere to be besides a church. Of those who do make it through the church doors, many of us come because of social obligations, friendships, community projects, or because we think we might learn something about ourselves or about the world.

How many of us come expecting an authentic encounter with the fiery God who appeared to Moses at Mt. Horeb? How many of us sing and pray as if the Creator of the Universe is hanging on every word? You’ll notice that I left “how many of us preach…” off that list. That one hits a little close to home. Still, how many of us expect that – somewhere in our lives – we will hear the voice of the living God speaking directly to us?

My guess is that, if we took a survey of Christians in churches around the world, the answer would be: not many. There are plenty of good reasons for those low expectations. Major religious leaders seem incapable of avoiding either scandals or silliness or both. In addition, many of our churches are putting so much energy into survival that we forget to emphasize what we are surviving for. Finally, on a personal level, prayers that are answered in ways other than those we had hoped for invariably cause us to wonder if anyone heard our prayers at all.

This is exactly the kind of complacency that Paul wants us to avoid. “No matter what you’re used to” he says, “the God you serve now is real. The Holy Sprit is going to act in your life and in the life of your congregation. Our God is not silent. Our God speaks.”

Then Paul gets to the tough part, because our God doesn’t come to us in the form of a burning bush or a whirlwind – our God speaks through us, through the Church. “No one.” Paul says, “proclaims ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

So if we haven’t been hearing the voice of God in our churches, we have no where to look but ourselves. God speaks, but using our voices. We can hear the voice of God, but we must listen to each other. God is bodily present with us, and that presence is directly tied to the fact that we are the body of Christ.

If we left it at that, however, we would be guilty of doing the very thing that the Church is often criticized for – offering platitudes with no actual, concrete explanation of how they work. Fortunately, Paul does not stop there. He goes on to explain that it is through our individual talents, our gifts, and our abilities that the Holy Spirit works.

In other words, if you can sing, it is because God can use your voice to speak through the hymns of the Church. If you can teach, it is because God can speak through your lessons. If you can cook, it is because God can use you to answer the prayers of the hungry. The list can go on indefinitely, and rest assured that every single person in this building has a gift that God intends to be used to cause the Holy Spirit to come alive in someone’s life.

It is also worth remembering that some of the key gifts that the Holy Spirit uses are not flashy ones. If you can smile, you can remind someone who might have forgotten that there is still laughter and joy in the world. If you can listen, for instance, God can use you to answer someone’s prayer to be heard. If you can pray, then you can provide the voice for someone who does not know how to voice their own needs.

The list I have given you is not exhaustive, and it is not exactly the list that Paul gives us; but I think that it is fair to say that the needs of the world change from generation to generation, and that God adapts us to meet those needs. With that in mind, there are several aspects of the talents that God has given us that are worth noting.

The most obvious is perhaps the most important. We must use our gifts. If we do not, then every time we’re watching television and the actors are making fun of Christians, we have no excuse. If we do not, then every time a visitor does not come back for a second visit, we have no excuse. If we do not use the gifts God has given us, and we find ourselves wondering why it’s so hard to get out of bed and get to Church, we have no excuse.

All of these concerns are symptoms of the same problem: people do not expect to encounter the living God in our churches. They also have the same solution, we must be willing to act on the skills and training we have been given, and do so in a way that brings people into contact with the love, the presence, and the mercy of God. If we do not, then every criticism of the absence of God from our churches, our neighborhoods, and our lives is simply a criticism of ourselves.

Of equal importance with remembering to use our gifts is the need to remember who deserves the credit for them. Paul notes that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” That is, I think, a particular reminder for pastors who get special seating and a chance to ramble on for as long as they like in front of their congregants, but it is worth mentioning to any of us who are tempted to take credit for what God has given to us.

Out talents are not our own, they are expressions of how God is present in the world. Those aspects of our gifts that impress people, that bring praise, that draw attention to us – they do so not because we are special but because the God who uses them is holy and wonderful. More importantly, certain talents do not make us more important to the work of the Church than others with different talents. All talents come from the same God who uses and allocates them according to the needs of the world, not according to our desires for praise or success.

Which leads us to the primary litmus test for whether or not we are using our talents for God’s purposes or our own. Paul notes, “To each is given the manifestation for the common good.” The Holy Spirit does not divide churches or wound feelings or exclude people. The Holy Spirit builds communities of loving, supportive neighbors.

If we can look to our gifts and to our contributions to our church community, and we realize that they are drawing people closer together and more closely into the presence of a loving God, then we can trust that they are achieving the purpose for which God entrusted them to us. If they are not accomplishing those things, then it is fair to assume that we need to prayerfully ask, “Why not?”

The question, though, shouldn’t just be asked of ourselves as individuals. Each local church, each denomination, and the Christian Church as a whole must ask, “Are we doing everything we can to nurture the gifts of our congregants?” What stands between our church members and the opportunity to use their gifts? Are there financial barriers? Do they have the money and the time to get the training they need? Are there social barriers making them afraid that they or their particular talents are not welcome? Is there an inertia barrier? Have we been doing the same things for so long that no one thinks we would be willing to try something new?

Perhaps we have failed in the simplest of ways…maybe we’ve forgotten to ask people, “What are you good at? How do you think God wants to use your gifts to be present in our community?”

What can we do in our churches, and in our seminaries, and in our communities to create opportunities where people can use their gifts in creative and powerful ways to draw us into the nurturing presence of God?

That is a larger question than the one that the church in Corinth probably asked Paul when he wrote this letter. Their question was probably more like, “Which spiritual gifts are the best ones, and why do some people get better gifts than we do?”

Paul corrects their question, pointing out that they started with a couple of flawed assumptions. Their first mistake was thinking that their gifts were about themselves and not about Holy God. Their second was thinking of themselves as individuals rather than as one single Body, united by a God of love.

It’s easy to understand the Corinthians’ mistake. They lived in a community where the freedom of the individual was emphasized and where people assumed they had the right to do anything they wanted that felt good.

As Paul reminds them and us, the example of Jesus and the presence of God calls us onto a better path. In a world that tells us to look inside ourselves, Christ calls us to look to each other. In a world that tells us to watch out for ourselves, Christ calls us to serve each other. In a world that judges success by what people acquire, our success will be judged by what we give.

All that’s left to figure out is what we have to give. Paul’s answer is simple: nothing more, and nothing less, than what God has given to us.